By Colleen De Bellefonds; Photograph by Freepik
You might be going way overboard.
Healthy fats are all the rage right now, with the Whole30 and ketogenic diets advocating consuming lots of filling fats to keep you satisfied. In some circles, coconut oil is a becoming the rising king of fats: A 2016 survey by the New York Times found that 72 percent of Americans think coconut oil is healthy—compared with just 37 percent of nutritionists.
“There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the impact of coconut oil’s saturated fat on heart health. Some headlines have made the leap that since some of its saturated fats are benign they’re all fine, but that’s hardly the case,” says New York-based nutritionist Karen Ansel. Here’s what you need to know about coconut oil—and how much is really okay to scarf down.
Coconut Oil And Saturated Fat
The coconut oil debate centres around the potentially bad health effects of its saturated fat content. A one-tablespoon serving of coconut oil has about 11 grams of saturated fat out of its total 13 grams of fat, according to the USDA. Because saturated fats raise your overall cholesterol levels, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping your intake to less than 10 percent of your kilojoules a day. If you’re taking in 8368 kilojoules a day, that would be 836 kilojoules from saturated fat or about 22 grams max per day.
The trouble is, saturated fat is found in most animal-derived foods—red meat, poultry skin, and all dairy products, including butter, milk, and yogurt (except, of course, the non-fat versions). A one-cup serving of low-fat Greek yogurt, for example, has two grams of saturated fat; one tablespoon of salted butter has seven grams. “If you eat two slices of cheese, a turkey burger, and half a cup of ice cream, you’re already above your recommended amount of saturated fat. That’s why, for most people, adding coconut oil to the mix doesn’t make much sense,” says Christy Brisette, President of 80 Twenty Nutrition.
Here’s where things get a bit more murky: About half of the saturated fats in coconut oil are lauric acid, which may also increase your levels of HDL cholesterol—the “good” kind. But health experts say that still doesn’t mean it’s good for you. A 2016 study of more than 100,000 people published in the British Medical Journal found that all types of saturated fat, including lauric acid, increased heart disease risk. Another 2017 review of several other studies by the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation concluded that coconut oil raises LDL levels (that’s the “bad” kind) as much as butter, beef fat, or palm oil. The paper also noted that while no studies have directly linked coconut oil with cardiovascular disease, increased LDL cholesterol levels have been linked to heart disease. “We advise against the use of coconut oil,” the report concludes.
“We don’t know if saturated fat from coconut oil is any better than the type found in animal products such as meat, cheese, and butter,” says Brisette. “Coconut oil could raise unhealthy cholesterol levels and potentially increase the risk of heart disease; it hasn’t been eaten enough for us to know the long-term impact.”
Coconut Oil And Weight Loss
You might also have heard some of the buzz about coconut oil promoting weight loss, because some of the saturated fats it contains (medium-chain triglycerides, also known as MCTs) are thought to boost metabolism. Problem is, studies haven’t directly tested coconut oil’s efficacy in helping people lose weight—rather, the studies looked at MCTs only, which don’t include lauric acid (the main type of fat in coconut oil). “Essentially, we don’t know if coconut oil has the same metabolic-boosting power as MCT oil does. Even if it does, it’s not going to be enough to radically change your physique without looking at other areas of your diet,” says Brisette.
What’s more, loading on coconut oil still loads you up on kilojoules. A one-tablespoon serving has about 502 kilojoules—around the same as a serving of olive oil and actually about 83 kilojoules more than a pat of butter. “When people hear the buzz about a new ‘superfood,’ they tend to go overboard and have it constantly,” says Brisette. But that can result in inadvertently adding unnecessary kilojoules to your diet.
While our experts see eye-to-eye on the drawbacks of coconut oil, they’re torn about how much is advisable to eat. Brisette recommends most people should limit coconut oil to a tablespoon a day—so, seven tablespoons per week max. “And if you’re trying to bring your cholesterol down, switch to olive oil,” she says. Ansel says if you’re a vegan and don’t eat any other foods that are high in saturated fat besides coconut oil, you can probably get away with about a tablespoon and a half a day (10 and a half tablespoons per week). But for people eating a normal diet, she doesn’t advise adding any coconut oil into their routine.
Since just one tablespoon of coconut oil provides about half of the daily recommended maximum of saturated fat, Ansel says it’s really hard for her to recommend adding that into the mix of saturated fats that most people are already eating. (Note: Ansel is a spokesperson for the Canola Council of Canada.)
“Keep in mind that coconut oil is still a fat, even if you think it’s a good one. Most of us are already eating plenty of saturated fat and don’t need to be adding more to our diets,” says Brisette. If you’re really set on trying coconut oil, Ansel says it’s important to gauge how much saturated fat you’re getting from all the other foods in your diet. If you eat lots of red meat, cheese, and butter—because you’re on, say, a ketogenic diet—gorging on coconut oil is just going to pile on more saturated fat.
Coconut oil also actually has a lower smoke point —the temperature at which it starts to break down and create carcinogens (yikes!)—than many common cooking oils, explains Brisette, making it not the ideal choice for many recipes involving high heat. She says she occasionally uses coconut oil in recipes where she wants a coconut flavour, like in baked goods or granola.
Fortunately, there are lots of other types of fats that get the green light from cardiologists and nutritionists alike. “I encourage my clients to get most of their other fats from healthy foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, and oily fish,” says Brisette. Decades of research has found that a diet rich in these types of unsaturated fats may improve your cholesterol levels. In terms of oils, walnut, peanut, and hemp oils are delicious in dressings; canola, olive, and avocado oils have higher smoke points, making them better choices for frying and roasting, explains Brisette.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com